Construction in Wenzhou, China
Wenzhou, China. Photo: Ken Larmon via Flickr
Oct 2014

China is fast becoming a living laboratory for sustainable urban development experiments.

Some time in the 2030s, the urban population of China will climb to over a billion people. That is more than the total in all the world’s cities in 1950, then estimated as a mere 0.7 billion.

China’s achievements of recent decades - maintaining economic growth that has created a large new middle class and lifted hundreds of millions more out of poverty - are tightly bound to a wave of urbanisation unprecedented even in a world that is embracing city life almost everywhere. As it continues, it poses new environmental questions, particularly in the vast Western regions of the country. Managing those, while also adjusting to cope with the environmental and social stresses imposed by already existing cities, is a monumental challenge for China’s politicians and planners.

The West of the country is a focus of attention because it is still relatively undeveloped. In addition, as Xiangzheng Deng and Xuemei Bai emphasised in a paper in Environment earlier this year, much of it is environmentally vulnerable. As they write, current moves to grow the economy of the West require, “trying to promote urbanization in an inland region that has a relatively low level of economic development and high level of poverty, with fragile eco-logical conditions and resource and environmental constraints, and that harbors a population with diverse cultural and ethnical backgrounds”.

Xuemai Bai, a professor at the Australian National University and a member of the Future Earth Science Committee, calls the Chinese developments “the greatest experiment in human resettlement in history”. In a separate commentary in Nature in May, she and colleagues Peijin Shi and Yansui Liu point out that sustainable urbanisation is a priority for China’s leaders because it is crucial for economic growth and, compared with other countries, China’s urbanisation still lags behind its industrialisation. City dwellers have higher incomes, which boosts domestic demand, and growing cities promote regional development - hence the look Westwards.

The ideal future vision for planners everywhere is now to create a path to rapid urbanisation different from the one followed in the first wave, in places like the industrial cities of nineteenth century England - typically, that was “anything goes” and clear up the mess afterwards.

China was no different but, with overriding priority given to economic growth, success at the cleaning up afterwards part of that script in already expanded cities has been limited so far. Its existing big cities are well-known for heavy air pollution, for example. There are also strong social tensions arising from the old system of tying household registration, hukou, to place of birth - so a large underclass of recent urban migrants lack basic rights in their new abode.

Efforts to ease these problems will go along with plans to boost urban growth in the West. Neither will be easy to manage. There have already been many “eco-city” initiatives in China, and regulatory and planning efforts by a plethora of government departments and state agencies. In contrast to urbanisation in other countries, much of China’s urban growth has been in new cities, rather than from rural-dwellers migrating to existing urban centres as is more typical elsewhere - the total number of cities in China rose from 250 in 1982 to more than 650 in 1997. One result, as Hongling Liu and colleagues wrote in a recent review, is that China has become “a vast living laboratory for experiments on sustainable urban development”. The results are very diverse, but often limited in their implementation as good intentions compete with the urgency of other development goals. In their view, the task of managing new city growth goes along with the challenge “to achieve sustainable urban development in hundreds of existing and poorly planned and built cities. Many demonstration examples have tended to become gated communities for rich people.” 

At the same time, a broader review by Xuemei Bai and colleagues a few years earlier, whose analysis takes in other Asian city experiments as well as Chinese efforts, begins to establish a framework for evaluating features that promote the best outcomes. They draw attention to the importance of policy changes, involvement of local government, community and international agencies and the importance of political and institutional barriers, rather than technological ones. Strong links with state and national governments are crucial for turning successful experiments into models that are emulated elsewhere.

In China, the government acknowledges the scale of the task of managing cities old and new - and outlines its approach in a new National Urbanization Plan unveiled last March. It envisages slower growth in urban populations, but with the percentage of city dwellers still rising from 52 per cent in 2012 to 60 per cent by 2020. This goes along with spectacularly ambitious targets, such as increasing the proportion of “green” buildings in new construction sites from a scant two per cent in 2012 to 50 per cent by 2020.

 Even if such a spectacular target can be met, green buildings are only part of the requirement for future city expansion. Urban growth could shift industrial development away from the booming South and East, and reduce regional inequalities. But as Bai and colleagues caution, it may also bring pollution to regions with fragile ecosystems, which could in turn affect the rest of the country. The great rivers of China rise in the West, but despite that, water supply is a problem, with half the 12 Western provinces being in short supply and most of the rest suffering seasonal shortages. Soil erosion and desertification are also common problems. Future migration could add to these pressures.

Tim O’ Riordan, in a commentary on Dengh and Bai’s Environment paper suggests that the West could see an influx of existing urban dwellers seeking refuge from the polluted cities of the East - and increasing ethnic tensions in the areas they move to. It could lead to chaos, he fears, as “it is unlikely that the Chinese economy can offer recipes for cleanup and restoration on the necessary grand scale to its damaged east and south yet still seek sustainable city evolution to its dry and ethnically troubled west and north”.

Reducing the risks he and other foresee will call for more research on how different models of less ecologically damaging urban development perform in practice. And, Bai argues, calls for a systems approach to planning and for tailoring the next round of development to carefully considered regional requirements. The quality of life of those billion Chinese city dwellers will be set by how far this can be achieved.

Further reading

Xiangzheng Deng & Xuemei Bai. Sustainable Urbanization in Western China. Environment, 56, 12-24. (2014)

Xuemei Bai, et al. Realizing China’s urban dream. Nature, 509: 158-160 (2014)

Xuemei Bai, Brian Roberts and Jung Chen. Urban sustainability experiments in Asia: patterns and pathways. Environmental Science and Policy, 13: 312-325 (2010)

Hongling Liu, et al. Analysis of sustainable urban development approaches in China. Habitat International, 41: 24-32 (2014)

World Bank/Development Research Center of the State Council, China. Urban China: Toward Efficient, Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanisation. (2014)